Democracy and the History of Philosophy in the Age of Trump
[Note: this is the text of a recorded mini-episode that is going up on the podcast feed. You can also hear it here on the website.]
This week, something rather surprising happened: Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States. A year ago, most observers were still thinking of this as a very remote prospect, more a cause for amusement than realistic political expectation. (That includes me, as you can see from this earlier blog post.) It’s a sobering moment for me as an American citizen and for the half of my podcast audience who live in the States, as well as for other listeners, who will inevitably be affected by this upheaval in world politics. It seems like a good moment to ask whether the history of philosophy has anything to say about an event like this. Is everything we’ve been discussing over these hundreds of episodes of merely abstract and academic interest? Or can ideas from long ago somehow help us to think about current events?
There are lots of ways to answer that question, but one of the most obvious would be to consider the value of democracy itself. Politically progressive people tend to see 2016 as a year that revealed deep flaws in “Western” democratic political systems. Not only was Donald Trump elected, but the British narrowly voted to leave the EU in a referendum held earlier in the year. Progressives see these two decisions as not just wrong, but deeply foolish. And Trump supporters might have reason to worry, too. Their man has just become President, but he got beat in the popular vote – millions more Americans wanted him to lose than to win. If not for the vagaries of the Electoral College system, Hillary Clinton would have just been inaugurated, whereas Trump supporters would have preferred to see her in jail (at least those who gleefully chanted “lock her up!”). So they hardly have reason to celebrate the wisdom of the electorate either. Besides, even leaving aside this divisive event, we can easily think of other alarming election results from around the world in recent years: Islamist parties winning polls in the Middle East, for instance.
So here we are getting close to what looks like a good philosophical question: is democracy the right way of making political decisions? Good question or not, though, this is a hard question for us to take really seriously. Whatever our misgivings about recent events may be, even the most pessimistic will probably agree with Winston Churchill’s famous remark that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” In the same speech, Churchill said that “no one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise.” The fact that it occasionally produces what we might consider to be the “wrong” result is simply to be expected, and is no reason for us to give up on the whole project.
But there is a more fruitful and interesting question we might ask ourselves: under which conditions is democracy most likely to produce good results, and avoid bad ones? How should democratic voters approach their rights and responsibilities, if they want their societies to flourish? Obviously these are matters that modern-day political philosophers discuss all the time, and I am far from pretending to be an expert in modern-day political philosophy. But, having read up quite a bit on the history of political philosophy – not least while working on the podcast – a few relevant thoughts do occur to me.
I start from the obvious place, which is Plato’s critique of democracy in the Republic. As long-time listeners will recall (perhaps with difficulty, since it was a while ago that I covered this), Plato was convinced that the ideal state would be ruled by philosophers, by which he meant men and women with a secure grasp on truth and the good. He portrays democracy as being far removed from this ideal, in fact as the worst kind of political constitution apart from outright tyranny. We should be careful not to assume that Plato was talking about democracy as we think of it today. For instance, he says explicitly in the Republic that in the kind of democracy he has in mind, state offices are assigned by random lot – as they in fact were in ancient Athens. Also, whereas we mostly forget the original meaning of the word “democracy,” Plato certainly does not: for him and for any ancient Greek it means rule by the demos, or “people,” which means the common run of citizens as opposed to an elite. Plato’s assumption is that the demos is obviously not going to be knowledgable about the truth and the good. Instead, the people will have a wide range of different views about these matters. So in sharp contrast to the unified, coherent, and virtuous state he has described in the Republic, the democratic state pursues all manner of different goals and spurious ideals. For this reason Plato says that democracy is in a way beautiful, like a cloth with many colors; but it is nearly the antithesis of what he thinks we should aim for in political life.
How could we answer these worries from our modern perspective? The most obvious, I think, would be to question his pessimism about the wisdom of the people. Actually you don’t need to be modern to question that. The next episode in the podcast will look at a medieval thinker named Marsilius of Padua, whose pioneering political work the Defender of the Peace includes the observation that the people as a whole are always better judges than a few wise councilors. Majority decisions are decisions made on the basis of the widest possible range of experience. This by the way is also why in the TV show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the most powerful and reliable card to play is not phoning your expert friend but polling the studio audience. If you’re ever on the show, save that one until you really need it.
Yet Plato would probably want to remind us of another passage from his Republic. It is a parable about a boat where all the passengers want to have a turn acting as captain; all the while, a skilled navigator is on the boat, but he is spurned and ignored by the rest of the people onboard. Plato is making a good point: if there is someone in your society who does have expert knowledge concerning a vital issue, then it seems foolish to ignore that person and just ask the audience. This is especially true if the question is a very difficult and complex one, or one that previous experience doesn’t help much to answer. Take a couple of current examples: climate change and the British decision to leave the European Union. There is an objective answer to the question how dangerous climate change is, and whether it is caused by humans – these are not matters of opinion, but matters of fact. And there is an objective fact about what will happen to the British economy if it pulls out of the EU. Sadly, they aren’t questions we are in a good position to answer using nothing but common sense and previous experience, because we’re talking here about hideously complex phenomena and about prospects for the future. They are paradigm cases where it would be sensible to defer to experts, or at least take their views very seriously. Yet, to take just one example of the reverse sentiment, the Euroskeptic (well, he would no doubt insist that he is a Eurosceptic) Michael Gove batted away the dire warnings being issued against Brexit with the remark, “people in this country have had enough of experts.” Less famously, he also said, “I’m not asking the British people to trust me. I’m asking them to trust themselves.”
I’m not quite with Plato: I think that there is a deep reserve of wisdom in the citizenry, and that democracy is admirable and advisable because it exploits that resource. But neither am I with Gove: I also think that voters in democracies should take seriously the views of well-trained experts. This sounds like a truism; so why do so many voters these days, to say nothing of Michael Gove, seem to disagree? One point frequently made recently is that there has been a leveling of the field of debate. Now anyone can go onto social media and propound their own ideas, no matter how ill-informed, and we can all find online sources that confirm what we already wanted to believe. That is surely part of the explanation. But I suspect a deeper reason may be the conflation of the “expert” with the member of the so-called “elite.” Of course it’s true that, for instance, climate scientists and specialists in economics (to say nothing of historians of philosophy, and come to think of it, Michael Gove) are the “elite,” in the sense that they tend to be highly educated and economically comfortable, to say nothing of predominantly white and male. For this reason, it would indeed be unwise to discount the possibility of bias on the part of the experts. But neither, I think, should laypeople take themselves to have as much insight into an issue like global warming as those who have done PhD’s, done experiments, and published research papers in the field.
Is it possible, then, to take heed of the advice of experts without just bowing to their authority, effectively outsourcing to the “expert elite” our responsibility to make up our own minds? As we saw in the podcast, this was an issue discussed intensively in the Islamic world. It went under the heading of what was called taqlīd, meaning “uncritical acceptance of authority.” A standard view was that the scholarly class, the so-called ulema, should never engage in taqlīd, whereas this is perfectly acceptable for the common run of people. On this view, it is part of being the member of an elite that one has the right and responsibility to think for oneself. That is an attitude we can find throughout the history of philosophy: in most periods, philosophy itself has been the most elite of practices, with the philosophers congratulating themselves for thinking deeply about issues others just take for granted. On the other hand, some theologians in the Islamic world insisted that every Muslim should take responsibility for his or her own beliefs. Even Muslims who are not scholars should at least work out that God’s existence can be proved, for instance. In this spirit, and in light of the fact that we live in societies with higher education and literacy rates than those enjoyed by medieval Islamic societies, we could argue that no citizen should engage in outright taqlīd. It’s not just the philosophers and scholars who should make up their own mind, it’s everybody.
But avoiding taqlīd never meant working out everything from scratch all on your own. It might mean doing that some of the time. But just as often, it meant training yourself to be a good judge of expertise. To put it another way, you can avoid uncritical acceptance of authority by engaging in critical acceptance of authority. Applying this line of thought to climate science, for example, we could conclude that our responsibility as citizens is not to go get a PhD in meteorology before taking the issue into account in our vote. It is to engage in a rational assessment as to which views about the climate are most trustworthy, and then follow the guidance offered by those views. Conversely, we should be suspicious of things we just happen to find on the internet. And we should be very suspicious of the politician who tries to convince us that everything is simple; that experts can safely be dismissed as a mere pressure group; that gut feeling is the first and last word on the important political issues of the day.
Aristotle might approve of this approach: not just because he too adopted a critical, but (usually) respectful attitude towards prior authorities, but also because it is a kind of “middle view” of the sort he often boasted of adopting. On the one hand, we should trust in our own rational abilities and use them to assess other people’s opinions, on the other hand, we shouldn’t trust in our abilities so much that we make up our own minds about complex problems without any help.
There’s another way in which the history of philosophy might push us towards this sort of confident modesty. If this podcast has shown us anything, it’s that valuable ideas are to be found in many, perhaps in all, places, cultures and times. Sure, we’ve looked at plenty of dead, white, European men – the sort of figures always included in surveys of the history of philosophy. But we’ve also found sophisticated philosophical ideas in ancient India, in the medieval and early modern Islamic world, in works by women who defied the oppressive conditions of the pre-modern world to earn their rightful place in our history of human thought. Learning about the history of philosophy should make us less impressed by our own moment in history and the culture of our own social group. It should make us open to ideas from other times and also from other kinds of people. The history of philosophy teaches us, in fact, that the more different these other people are from us, the more likely they are to have come up with ideas that we ourselves could never have invented. But if this is a kind of modesty, it is indeed a kind of confident modesty, in that we must still trust ourselves to understand and discover such truths when we search for them. We should be humble enough to open our eyes, trusting that if we do, we are capable of seeing.
In this way the history of philosophy itself offers a welcome correction to some of the pernicious political trends of our times. No one who is arrogant about their own viewpoint on the world, to the point that they are willfully ignorant or disrespectful of other kinds of people, can be a good historian of philosophy. The history of philosophy demands that we believe in the value of human reason wherever it is found. This is an attitude we can also live by when we are not doing history of philosophy; and it’s an attitude we should expect, and demand, from our political leaders. In times like these, philosophy, open-mindedness, and thoughtfulness are surely not enough by themselves, but they may be more important than ever.
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